The Ocean is My Nation: Omkar’s Changemaker Journey

To change his world, Omkar first had to find the confidence within himself. Now, Omkar is on a journey of self-discovery, learning, and leadership for climate action.
Omkar
Source: Ashoka

This story was written by Omkar and edited for length and clarity.

On the day of delivering a presentation at school, my friend was supposed to lead the presentation, and I was the “nerd” who designed it. The audience came, but the speaker - my friend - did not. In that moment, I was fearful as I was pushed by my school teacher to present. Panicking about why my friend did not show up was meaningless. I had to deliver! I grabbed the microphone at the front of the classroom and, with shivering legs, I started to deliver the presentation. In just two minutes of time, I saw that people were listening.  I was doing great. That day, my whole world changed. I became a powerful presenter! 

My name is Omkar G, and I started Sagar-Seva, a youth-led social venture, when I was 16 years old. We connect the hearts of people with an essential element of water cycle, the river. 

We train college students and citizen groups to test water quality in nearby rivers, specifically dissolved oxygen. Sagar-Seva organizes dissolved oxygen testing workshops and teaches individuals how these tests impact our understanding of the river’s health and water quality. Water advocacy is hollow in absence of self-verified data. To fill this hollowness, it is essential to enlighten people and inspire them to test water quality of river each and every month, just like we monitor haemoglobin of aged parents.  

This is my story. 

In a world where there is very limited learning inside the classroom, my journey so far has taught me to develop compassion, embody a research mindset, and, most importantly, constantly practice leadership. I believe that compassion is a core value in changemaking. For my team, we believe you must be compassionate towards the river and ocean if you are going to solve the ocean and rivers’ problems. 

Even after I became a confident presenter in school, my presentation skills alone were not sufficient to lead a journey like this.

One fine day, I was attending an exhibition in my city. There I came across the stall of Sagar-Mitra, an environmental action program that encourages people to learn about the planet and and how to protect it. Out of curiosity, my friend and I approached the stall and met the founder of Sagar-Mitra, Mr. Vinod Bodankar. We talked for ten minutes, and I was moved. Bam! In just a few minutes, he created a new world of possibilities for me: a hope to save the planet.

The next day, I forgot about this experience and started to live my life as I was living it before. My friend, Soham, asked me the following week, “Why you haven’t contacted Vinod sir and invited him to our school?” I had no answer. I went to my principal immediately and told him about this program, Sagar-Mitra. 

From the day Vinod sir came to our school, my training in ethical leadership started. I was given the responsibility of managing the Sagar-Mitra chapter in my school. I received a lot of appreciation for starting and managing this initiative in school, which boosted my confidence.

The Sagar-Mitra initiative addresses the problem of plastic pollution through a ‘decentralized community driven approach’. This program is not just about plastic, but about ‘Ahimsa’ or ‘Non-Violence’, where students learn about the havoc created by plastic in the lives of birds, fish, and other creatures. This is also an action-oriented program where we ask students to collect plastic at home for a month and bring it to school for recycling.

In my school, we explored a lot of ideas with school children to understand how we could encourage them towards climate action. How could we increase plastic collection? How could we ensure that every student understands the concept? Through our research,we received splendid results, as well as some new insights. We learned that more than 50% of students fetched plastic from their homes, so we tried to develop a system where students would be able to deposit plastic waste each week. Unfortunately, that model did not work, so the key learning was to keep trying and reflecting upon the results we received.

When I went to college, I launched the same initiative in my college and nearby schools. I delivered talks in more than 25 schools and colleges. While working with college students, I realised that they have massive enthusiasm about protecting the planet. Why not drive this enthusiasm to create something good? This was a call to participate, and for many, the answer was “yes!”

These were the initial days of Sagar-Seva. I brought together my friends and some enthusiastic students in my college to form a team. We created a system where college students mentor school students to bring plastic from their homes for recycling and the results were fantastic. We saw a 300% rise in plastic collection in just a month! Initially there were 10 to 15 college students on the team, but this gradually grew to 50.

During this process, we had a lot of discussions and brainstorming sessions and as a result of that, we decided to study our local river. We arranged a river walk with ‘Jeevitnadi’, a Pune-based NGO. When we arrived, we saw stinking, dark coloured river water full of plastic and rubbish. We were stunned. 

So, we designed an action plan. From that weekend on, we hosted clean-up drives at ‘Vitthalwadi’, the nearest stretch of river by our college. It was a shocking experience. But some questions arose – How do we prove that this river is dead? Is there any measurement for it?

We found the answer in this inquiry through our mentors, and we purchased a dissolved oxygen (D.O.) testing kit. We started to test river water on a regular basis, but were saddened to find that every time we tested the river water, the D.O. was zero. This meant that THE RIVER IS DEAD!

Due to this testing initiative, we received calls from many places to teach others how to test D.O. We brought more kits and empowered people to test river health on their own. Until now, we have completed more than 250 tests on the river and taught more than 15,000 citizens. Many newspapers covered the situation of the river with scientific facts and, as a result, solutions-oriented conversations and dialogues emerged around the situation of the Mula-Mutha Rivers.

Interested in learning more about water pollution, I applied for Environmental Engineering and shifted to a school in Kolhapur for my studies. A new Sagar-Seva group was formed there and we started dissolve oxygen testing in Kolhapur, too. I received an opportunity to work with the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation and co-create the Sagar-Mitra program for all the schools in Kolhapur City. We worked with 30 schools and trained teachers on the philosophy of Sagar-Mitra. 

One of the group members, Prajakta, says, “From the day I am part of Sagar-Seva, it’s not just me, but even my parents are able to observe a newly born Prajakta. It did not just make make me aware about society and problems, but also empowered me to act upon them.” Like Prajakta, there have been many lives transformed by working with Sagar-Seva. 

Throughout my journey, I am driven by the thought that the “ocean is my nation” and any country which pollutes the ocean is my responsibility. I am on a journey which is not just about environmental protection, but also about my own personal discovery. With each turn in my life, I am able to uncover a new underlying aspect of myself, which makes me feel even more powerful.  

“If you want to live a life with power, having a changemaker journey is crucial. It is an experimental school where you play on-the-court rather than watching life from the stands.”